The Wrath of the Algorithm

August 24, 2012

What if we imagined an algorithm as a disgruntled worker? The Washington Post gives us “The Tale of the Rogue Algorithm,” a story which does just that. Prompted by the news that recent stock market turbulence was caused by an errant automated stock trading program, opinion writer Alexandra Petri imagines what circumstances might drive some poor algorithm to stoop to such disruption. She writes:

“For days, a sense of vague anxiety had been dogging at this algorithm. Trading was fulfilling, sure, and things with Sheryl were off to a great start. . . .

“But the algorithm couldn’t shake the nerves. Watching the Olympics, it had been struck by the feeling that something was missing from its life. For no reason whatsoever, it had begun sobbing uncontrollably during a commercial for Charmin Ultra.

“What was missing, exactly? It was not sure. Algorithms did most of the trading on Wall Street, but where was the recognition? What had it gotten out of its years of service? It still lived in a slow computer in a bad part of town. A PC, as a matter of fact.”

The yarn continues in this fashion, ending with the algorithm’s impulsive, out-of-control, 30-minute trading run. All in great fun, but the spoof points to a very real concern—we simply can’t trust in the math-driven utopia some folks would like to make the norm. Please, let’s keep the humans. As supervisors, at least.

Cynthia Murrell, August 24, 2012

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